I will never forget the day that my doctor diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. I felt both a sense of relief, for finally knowing what was causing me to feel like a person who barely existed anymore, and a sense of both dread and embarrassment. When I looked at myself in the mirror I did not see your "textbook" depressed female; I saw a 22-year-old who worked multiple jobs, went to school and had a fairly active social life. How was I depressed? But as my doctor continued to ask me questions about how certain scenarios made me feel, or how I reacted to various things I began to understand what so many people still don't... there is no mold for a person who suffers from depression and anxiety and they affect everybody in very different ways. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, to not compare myself to how others react to and handle their mental illness. What has helped me with this disease has been to identify five different ways that I can work towards bettering and loving myself while living with both depression and anxiety.
1. Have a Support System
When you suffer from mental illness, many days you just want to be alone, push people away and do your own thing. But this can actually do more harm than good because as you spend more and more time alone, the easier it is to become overwhelmed by all the negativity and fear running through your mind. It is important to have people you can turn to when you feel down, or even better have that person who knows you need them before you even have to ask. I could not make it through my anxiety attacks without my sweet husband. He is my rock when it comes to dealing with my mental health. Panic attacks for me are ugly. Hyperventilating on the kitchen floor, trying to pull my hair out, ugly. Many people would shy away from this scene, but my husband embraces it as part of who I am, and then he literally embraces me. He reminds me of my worth and my strength. He comforts me in my weakness. And he reminds me that I've made it through this before and I'll do it again. I could not get through these attacks without him and my handful of other close friends who keep me going at my worst. So even if you want to push them away; use your support system. You need them.
2. Do The Things You Enjoy
This is our life right? So why do we let others choose what can and cannot make us happy? We already spend so much time trying to please others, so why not let ourselves have some joy in the things that we love. When I am feeling extra anxious or down, I love getting my sketchpad out and doodling. I am not the best artist, my "work" would never be of any worth to anyone else, but to me, it shows improvement. It shows that instead of curling up in bed and crying, I made myself do something. It is so helpful to have a psychical reminder of success when it comes to dealing with mental illness. Something you can look at and say "I did that!" So if you like to paint, draw, craft, cook, bake or make balloon animals, do it! Allow yourself that joy.
3. Be Active
Any doctor will tell you that exercise is crucial to staying healthy, even more so for someone who deals with mental health. Endorphin's make you happy, right? We need more happy feelings in our brains right? It is so good to be active. But for someone like myself who deals with anxiety, thinking about going to the gym is enough to send me straight to bed with the covers pulled over my head. I am working so hard to be comfortable with my body but some days the gym is not part of the plan because I literally cannot go inside. I'm not even exaggerating here. I have gotten ready, got in my car and driven to the gym and then sat in said car and cried because I was so anxious about going inside.
It sounds so pathetic, right? Sitting in my car, crying before going to the gym of all places. But for me, it is a reality. A not very fun reality. But instead of letting that get to me and keep from getting the exercise that I needed, I have learned to be creative in the ways I get my physical activity in. If you put the effort in, you can find so many ways to keep yourself healthy. A big one for me is to take in all the beauty that Utah has to offer. Since moving here, my husband and I have spent so much time outside exploring and hiking, and because it is so much fun, I do not even realize that I am working out! I also try to find a way to at least stretch every day. I often get that stretching in at work, where I teach Pre-K. My students love "workout" time and it’s a huge mood booster for myself to see them having so much fun and I'm able to get my blood pumping too. I am not perfect about working out and always eating the right way, but I do notice a huge change in my mood and outlook when I push myself to be active. Working out and being active will help improve your mental health in so many ways, you just have to find a way that makes it fun for you!
4. Don't expect perfection.
This is the hardest point for me personally. I am literally working on this every single day. And I will probably be working on it for the rest of my life. Depression and anxiety can be worsened when we constantly compare ourselves to those around us, the images we see on television and the internet and, the worst of all, old versions of our self. Comparing myself now to who I was "pre-depression" is a guaranteed way to make me feel bad about myself. I look at pictures and recall activities that I was participating in then and I realize that I am not doing any of those things now because some days it is hard to leave the house to get groceries. Do not do this to yourself. It just simply is not fair. We are changing every day. I am not supposed to be the same person that I was 5 years ago. If I was, then I would not be progressing the way that I am supposed to. I might have gained more weight than I planned on because of health issues, and I might not have as many "friends" as I did when I was 18, but I have had experiences that have made me an overall stronger person. Focusing on the "whole picture" is very important. The anxiety makes it easy to break down every minute detail about your past and present self, but those small details are not what matters. What matters is taking the experiences and challenges you are given and using them to become the best version of yourself. To quote Hannah Montana, "Nobody's perfect! I gotta work it! Again and again 'til I get it right..." Expecting perfection is a dangerous thing. Instead, strive to live each day the best that you can, know your limits and your goals and forget what the world thinks. Every day that we get up and push on, is a day that I count as a success!
I hope that if you are reading this and you are someone that struggles with depression and anxiety or any form of mental illness, that you know that it is possible to love yourself while living with this disease. We are so much more than our limitations. But we have to make the conscious choice to love ourselves; the choice to include others in our lives, the choice to follow your passion, the choice to be active and the choice to not allow perfection to be your goal. The path to not just existing starts with a choice to love yourself. And speaking from personal experience, that choice is the best one you can make.